A landmark study in Seattle suggests that government, from local authorities to developers, could do more to help the homeless — and they might do so without breaking the bank.
The research, presented at a housing conference last week by Seattle Housing Authority manager Shenggen Chen, is based on observations by the agency about the homeless over four years in Seattle.
Despite addressing homelessness in the past decade with a municipal zoning ordinance requiring developers to provide 150 percent of the “cost-effective” increase in the stock of affordable housing, the city has increased the supply of available, permanent housing for those most vulnerable to eviction and homelessness from 925 units in 2013 to 1,753 units in 2016, a 50 percent increase, Chen reported.
Yet when its rates were compared to those of other communities — including those in New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. — the city’s unit growth seemed to fall short. That led the agency to conclude that developers building apartments with subsidized rents did a better job of addressing the problem of homelessness than do the city’s own vacant spaces.
Homelessness, in particular, is difficult to address, Chen said. There are 10,350 residents sheltered and 3,350 sleeping on the streets in the city of 900,000 people.
“As the mayor has said, ‘This is a chronic, long-term problem,’” he said. “It’s very hard to catch up when 10,000 people are homeless, so we know our efforts aren’t going to work.”
Local governments must also look at the problem “in perspective,” he added. “We are doing a lot, but it’s a lot less than what we could be doing.”
Such concerns are already being explored in other cities, he said. “If people ask us, ‘Why do you have so many people sleeping on the streets?’ That’s when you ask, ‘How are you going to get people off the streets and into housing?’”
Amanda Harpster, a lawyer for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said Seattle’s numbers should be borne in mind as cities focus on homelessness, including in Congress.
“Seattle’s finding that it’s much harder to get adequate housing for people than we would like,” Harpster said. “It’s a challenge to imagine how the federal government, with its initiatives on building permanent supportive housing, can continue to ignore state and local responsibilities to combat the chronic homelessness crisis.”
That said, Chen said the state has stepped up to the challenge of providing housing for residents who are homeless. Even though the total number of people in the region served by Housing First — the primary initiative of the county government — has fallen from 6,900 to 4,200 in four years, the numbers of homeless people decreasing nearly 90 percent since the beginning of that time are real progress, he said.
Finding a solution to homelessness, he said, won’t be possible without collaboration between the private and public sectors.